Stanly County mom is defending decision to temporarily homeschool son during peaks in pandemic
In January, as the COVID positivity rate in Stanly County, northeast of Charlotte, soared to nearly 40%, Morgan Perez made the tough decision to keep her son Jaxon out of school.
Perez, a former Stanly County Schools teacher, was worried about her family’s health, particularly that of her father, who lives next door. He was being treated for lung cancer, and the family took extra care to protect him in a county where more than half of residents were unvaccinated.
Stanly County Schools was one of several districts that briefly switched to distance learning in January after school officials experienced a “significant number of positive COVID-19 cases.”
The Perez family’s great fear was that Jaxon, a second grade student at Endy Elementary School in Albemarle, would catch the virus at school and pass it on to his grandpa.
“That’s the main reason we took COVID so seriously,” Perez explained. “It would be devastating if my father got COVID.”
However, except during the brief January window, the school district did not offer a remote option for students.
The decision to homeschool Jaxon at other times of the school year put the Perez family on the clock. Jaxon’s absence was not considered “excused.” Under state law, parents of students who accumulate more than 10 unexcused absences are at risk of being charged with truancy if they do not make good faith efforts to ensure their children attend school.
Jaxon recorded 16 unexcused absences from Endy Elementary between August 23, 2021 and January 14, 2022. Rachel M. Hartzog, a Stanly County Schools social worker, filed a truancy complaint against Perez on February 23 on behalf of principal Jodi Autry, according to court documents Perez shared with Policy Watch.
Autry did not return calls or emails from Policy Watch.
The criminal justice system and school attendance
It is a North Carolina offense for a parent to allow a child to accumulate 10 or more unexcused absences. It’s rare, but a parent can be fined or even jailed for violating the state’s compulsory attendance law.
Stanly County Schools issued Perez a subpoena for violating the state’s compulsory attendance law. She had to hire an attorney to help her respond to the subpoena; Keeping Jaxon at home cost Perez $750 in legal fees.
Perez said the principal did not follow the district’s attendance and truancy process. The policy establishes school administration responsibilities when students have three, six, and ten or more unexcused absences.
Perez said she never received a call about her son’s presence, as required by the policy. She was also not asked to attend a conference to discuss the absence, Perez said, and heard nothing from Hertzog, the school social worker, until she called to say the district was filing a truancy complaint.
Perez’s case was eventually dismissed. But it raises questions about how public schools have dealt with truancy during the pandemic, when chronic absenteeism has increased dramatically.
Chronic absenteeism is defined as absent at least 10% of the days in a school year for any reason, including excused and unexcused absences. Students who miss a significant number of school days are at risk of academic failure.
In North Carolina, school principals have wide discretion in filing truancy complaints. Perez said she believes a system of checks and balances is needed to ensure school leaders are making good decisions.
“It needs someone else to double and triple check to determine if a criminal charge is necessary,” Perez said. “What I was told by the Stanly County Schools Superintendent is that it is 100% discretionary in principle. There is nobody looking behind the headmaster.”
Perez submitted a public records request asking for the number of students at Stanly County Schools with 10 or more unexcused absences from the district’s elementary and middle schools.
According to information provided to her by the district, as of May 17, 2022, there were 960 elementary and middle school students in the school district with 10 or more unexcused absences, including 35 at Endy Elementary. But records showed only nine families were summoned to court for violating the compulsory attendance law. The Perez family was not included in this data as Jaxon had already retired from school.
Perez wonders why she was among the parents accused of truancy. The stay-at-home mother told county officials about her plans to homeschool Jaxon until COVID numbers go down. Perez said she stayed in touch with his teacher, who she said did schoolwork and had no objection to the arrangement.
“It was perfectly manageable what I expressed to the teacher and the principal,” Perez said. “If I didn’t feel like I could do it, I would hire someone or do something else to make sure they didn’t fall behind. I felt absolutely capable of teaching him the elementary school curriculum.”
There are times when parents should be charged with truancy, Perez acknowledged. “I wonder how it helps the situation, but I understand if there is a situation where neglect is suspected or there is fear for the child’s best interests and they have tried to communicate with the parents and are not getting through,” said Perez. “A school fee should be the last resort.”
Marcus Pollard, attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said parents who are concerned about the health of a child or family member should not be charged with truancy. Pollard said parents must have the final say in deciding whether it’s safe for children to go to school.
“The pandemic is something none of us have experienced, so a lot of kids have missed a lot of time,” Pollard said. “Complaining a parent about truancy is not reasonable. You can always talk and find things out.”
Perez’s decision to keep Jaxon at home also cost the boys a place in the school’s Dual Language Immersion (DLI) program. Autry recommended that Jaxon be fired from the program for excessive unexcused absences.
Perez was informed of the decision by letter at the end of January.
“As you can see, Jaxon has not complied with a high rate of absenteeism and is not currently attending school,” the letter reads. “As a result, Jaxson’s (sic) enrollment in the DLI program was suspended effective January 28, 2022.”
According to a letter Perez shared with Policy Watch, Autry said Jaxon will be given the opportunity to return to the program in the fall.
“Upon re-enrollment in Stanly County Schools, Jaxon will have the opportunity to take re-entry assessments to measure bilingual proficiency and academic achievement,” Autry wrote. “If the proficiency is deemed appropriate, an invitation to participate in the immersion program and a participation contract will be offered.”
Meanwhile, Perez reported that Jaxon undertook several “assessments” last week to determine if he was academically fit to return to the program. He failed three of the four, she said.
Perez said school officials refused to share the reviews so she could see what Jaxon did wrong.
“It’s all kind of fishy,” she said. “I don’t know if I should get answers to my questions. I was basically ignored.”